On Modality

“I suspect it is really a meaningless question. The difference between Freedom & Necessity is fairly clear on the bodily level: we know the difference between making our teeth chatter on purpose & just finding them chattering with cold… When we carry it up to relations between God & Man, has the distinction perhaps become nonsensical?” CSL Letters, Vol 3

Modality is an abstract and scary word. There is, however, no reason to be intimidated by it. I take it simply to mean “the modes of being which are either contingent or necessary.” In other words, there is this distinction in things between what we think could have been otherwise and with what we think could not have been otherwise. For instance, it is contingent that Obama is president; and it is necessary that 1+1=2. In the first case there is a fact that is possibly different. In the second there is a fact that could not be otherwise. Thus we have two examples of contingent and necessary things. But notice that contingent and necessary things presuppose the Contingent and Necessary as such. Now, insofar as we are talking about the Contingent and Necessary as such, we are talking about modality. And this modality will be the subject of this post.

For reasons I have stated elsewhere, it seems to me reasonable to say that these terms – Contingent and Necessary – do not actually apply to God’s action. For to suppose they do is to imagine God as a temporal object who is “faced” with a set of possible worlds over and against himself. But for God there can be no possible worlds – no possibilities at all – which do not spring from his own creative mind and nature. How could God be faced with a reality that he did not create? In other words, things are only possible insofar as God has first made them possible. Therefore (to horribly condense the argument), it is God’s very creative action itself which imparts possibility to the things themselves, rather than vice versa.

What this amounts to is that it is meaningless to talk about God’s action using Contingent and Necessary language. We can rightly describe what God makes in these terms; but God’s very act in making them is not either contingent or necessary. It simply is what it is, and that’s all there is to say about it.

This may sound like an abstract and unnecessary point, but to me it is crucial, for two reasons. First, without this in place God’s sovereignty and creativity are limited. For insofar as God is faced with these metaphysical laws of the necessary and the contingent “out there” apart from his own creative will, he must therefore work with and around them. But again, if God is the First Cause and source of all being whatsoever, there can exist no such laws or limits of reality independent of his creative action. Second of all, with this distinction in mind (that the necessary and contingent do not apply to God’s creative act or essence itself), we can better explain how God knows future free (i.e. contingent) acts. If God himself has created the free acts or if he will create them in their very contingency, then he can know them simply on the basis of his knowledge of his own will to create them. However, if God himself is, as it were, subject in his very being and knowledge to the contingencies of the free acts themselves “out there”, then his being and his knowledge would be determined by the contingencies themselves which exist independently of his will. They would exist outside God and so therefore determine him. Since they are over and against him his knowledge would become what it was based on their own reality. Thus, he could not know  contingent free choices until they came to pass and determined his knowledge.

In light of these issues it seems to me best to view modality as such as part of the conceptual realm only: i.e. to view the difference in the Necessary and Contingent to be basically equivalent to the “unimaginable” and the “imaginable.” We say it is “necessary” that 1+1=2, but that is only because it is unimaginable to us that it could be otherwise. We don’t mean that, as considered in God’s changeless and immutable act of Pure Existence, which itself encompasses everything that exists (since he eternally causes all that exists) – we don’t imagine that viewed from this angle it makes sense to say 1+1=2 “could not have been otherwise.” There is no “otherwise” to speak of: there is nothing outside the Everything that is both God and his eternal action with which to compare things to. There is really only one universe and one history and future. There is nothing else to set it against. For “anything else” could only exist were God to will it to exist, in which case it would itself be part of the Everything that we are now talking about, which God has always and eternally caused to be.

Now, the conclusion that modality does not apply to God’s essence does not imply that God was fated to create nor that he spontaneously created for no reason. Both conceptions really just smuggle in the idea of modality and attach it to God’s own action, rather than the things which God’s action produces. To say that God “had to” create is meaningless. And to say that God “could have refrained” from creating is also meaningless. The truth is, God simply IS and DOES; and what he IS is a creator and what he DOES is create. Period.

God’s freedom need not be thought of as his “ability to do otherwise.” Why not simply construe his freedom as the fact that all God’s act come from himself, without movement or dependence from some prior cause? Why is it so essential to think that God “could have” done other than he did, if the opposite – that God “had to” create – is also false?



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